© Calais, cité de la dentelle et de la mode, démonstration sur métier | Angélique Lyleire

An epic human tale

What do the creation of glass, lace and mother-of-pearl have in common with mining and the production of cast iron? The answer is people: people who have extracted, created or crafted these exceptional materials to make products that are still highly sought after. They form part of a story of human endeavour and vision – and they’ve helped shape the Hauts-de-France region.

Northern France _ Méru _ Musée De La Nacre Et De La Tabletterie (Mother-of-pearl Museum) © Musée de la nacre et de la tabletterie _ Jean Baptiste QuillienNorthern France _ Méru _ Musée De La Nacre Et De La Tabletterie (Mother-of-pearl Museum) © Musée de la Nacre et de la Tabletterie© Musée de la nacre et de la tabletterie _ Jean Baptiste Quillien
©Northern France, Méru, Musée De La Nacre Et De La Tabletterie (Mother-of-pearl Museum) |Musée de la nacre et de la tabletterie - Jean-Baptiste Quillien
Sars-Poteries

01. The glass-blowers’ legacy

The famous mirrors in the remarkable Galerie des Glaces at Versailles were created in Aisne at Saint-Gobain by the iconic French company of the same name. Meanwhile, bottles for some of the most prestigious names in French perfume are still crafted today in the Somme.

In the green fields and woodlands of Avesnois, glass takes on even more sparkle. If you spot a geometric shape in the middle of the countryside, you have arrived in Musverre, a haven for glass-blowers. What strikes you as soon as you enter are the almost cathedral-like dimensions of the interior and the immaculate white displays that showcase unique pieces of flawless glassware. They are truly beautiful – magical, even – and you can’t help but smile as you approach them for a closer look.

You’ll be hypnotised by highly contemporary pieces or the reflections of a thousand colours in the bousillés, the pieces craftsmen make during their breaks from production work. You can admire the skill of glass-blowers in the workshops and studios that adjoin the Musverre or visit the glass museum in Trélon to learn about the secrets of glass-making. Throughout your travels, make sure you take a minute to look up – you’ll see the famous épis de faîtage, spike-like forms that have sat on the roofs of Sars-Poteries – an early glass-blowing centre – and the surrounding villages since the start of the 20th century. Locals proudly display these blown-glass spikes as symbols of local craftsmanship and quality.

Guise

02. Godin’s social utopia

French industrialist Jean-Baptiste Godin went from working in a small cast iron stove workshop in Aisne in the mid-19th century to developing a social enterprise cooperative for 1500 workers. The story is a great illustration of the traits of Hauts-de-France – a spirit of enterprise coupled with goodwill.

You can still visit Godin’s innovative workplace in Guise today. The architecture of the huge edifice created for the communal organisation reflects Godin’s desire to look after the well-being of his workers by designing a small town full of useful services such as apartments and gardens, a laundrette, a school, a theatre and a swimming pool. “Work is central – it is the main objective for the man on the land, it should be the focus of all social considerations and be maintained by strict social justice,” Godin is quoted as saying – a quote that encapsulates his character and philosophy.

With all this history and Godin’s impressive building, it’s easy to forget the high standard of work that is still produced in the region today – such as the famous Le Creuset casserole pots, which are made in Fresnoy-Le-Grand and sold by the millions worldwide. Luckily, you only have to go as far as the on-site shop to pick up a great souvenir for your kitchen.

Lewarde - Bruay-la-Buissière

03. Mining country

Novel ways to explore

Descend into a mine at Lewarde’s Historic Mining Centre, installed on the banks of the Delloye pit – it’s a truly unique insight into life at the coal face. As the history of mining in the region unfolds before you, learn how sacrifice, endurance and solidarity helped the industry contribute to the economic prosperity of France for three centuries. Start your journey in the changing room, where miners hung their clothes, and the lamp room before descending via lift into the mine itself. It’s a truly memorable experience that will get your heart racing!

A different but equally authentic experience is a visit to Bruay-La-Buissière’s la Cité des Electriciens, which was built to house miners and their families between 1856 and 1861. You can spend a night in the bedrooms of Roger, Liliane and Jean-Baptiste – former miners who have given their names to this designer restoration. Settle in and feel at home as you learn more about the history of this interesting and unique place to stay. And to power you through a weekend exploring the region’s old mining country you’ll need some local sustenance! Why not try poireaux Malabar (Malabar leeks), poiriers Beurré Hardy (Beurré Hardy pears) or pommiers Précoce de Wirwignes (Précoce de Wirwignes apples)? All are ancient varieties cultivated by the families of miners in the gardens of the Cité and served at the on-site restaurant, Carin Gourmand.

Calais - Caudry - Chantilly

04. Meet the exceptional lace-makers

‘Made in France’

Lace made in Hauts-de-France is found in the most luxurious brands. The region has a proud lace-making tradition, which you can discover in Calais at the Museum for Lace and Fashion, and at the lace museums in Caudry and Chantilly – each showcases unique and interesting insights into this fascinating local industry. Calais has historically specialised in white lace and lingerie, while Caudry is famous for its clothing. Look especially for the Dentelle de Calais-Caudry® label, a badge of the highest quality that represents lace produced here for the last 200 years. In the museums in both Calais and Caudry, you can see demonstrations of quality lace-making by the loom operators using “Leaver” machines – the last still in operation in the world – and browse original pieces made locally. You’ll come to understand how this know-how has seduced fashionistas worldwide, including the Duchess of Cambridge, whose wedding dress lace was made in Caudry. For black lace, head to Chantilly. Floral patterns against a background of hexagons are a particular hallmark of this especially fine lace.

Méru

05. The natural beauty of mother of pearl

The magic of shells and crustaceans transforming into buttons or dominoes can be witnessed at the Mother of Pearl Museum in the Oise town of Méru. You’ll be hypnotised by the iridescent reflections of buttons, dominoes, decorative tablets and fans – all created from nacre, or mother of pearl.

In the old days, working with mother of pearl was a family business that helped make Méru the centre of a thriving button industry. This ancestral know-howlong sought-after by leading fashion houses in Paris – has been kept alive and is superbly presented at the museum. “Shaping mother of pearl requires a great deal of care and a delicate touch,” says Audrey Martin, an “inlayer” or marquetry specialist at the museum and a former student of the prestigious Boulle school of fine arts and crafts in Paris. Watch as the guides bring to life the creation of a mother of pearl button in a workshop that has been authentically reconstructed and driven by a steam-powered machinery. Enjoy the contrast between the large and noisy machines and the delicacy of the finished product. Browse the collections to see theatre glasses covered in mother of pearl, delicately decorated fans, a letter opener carved with fish and foliage, or an elegant cigarette lighter that harks back to the fifties. Don’t forget to leave time to drop into the shop for a small souvenir to mark a memorable visit.